Assessing the Arab Gulf’s Art History

Scene from the Sharjah Biennial 7 (image via Flickr user Makz)
Scene from the Sharjah Biennial 7 (image via Flickr user Makz)

In his critique of the Gulf art boom for the Wall Street Journal late last month, Noah Feldman eagerly took up the cause of Tahrir’s political muralists, dubiously trumpeting that this was “the first time in Arab history that the visual arts had a major impact on public consciousness.” Feldman then contrasted these contributions with the relative paucity of organic visual expression in the modern Arab Gulf, linking this point to familiar refrains regarding the region’s art market dominance. Though it’s probably a mistake to take Feldman, a law professor, seriously on art historical matters (or even on Arab affairs — the man was last seen penning the disastrous Iraqi constitution), today Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi took to Al Monitor to debunk Feldman’s assertions regarding the history of “modern art” in the Gulf.

Al Qassemi, a prominent Dubai-based pundit, art collector, and member of the Sharjah royal family, offers an adequate rejoinder, despite his slightly confused usage of the term “modern art,” and helpfully chronicles the various significant Gulf visual artists of the last 75 years. But his point is positioned in a familiar way: a defensive insistence that the region has a vital cultural history in the arts, the suggestion that Feldman’s comment is a foil for more problematic biases, and the vague allusion to colonial injustice. The first claim may be somewhat true, but Al Qassemi’s evidence at times belies his own rhetoric:

[A]rt in the Gulf had a broader meaning altogether and included singers, poets, musicians, calligraphists, actors and craftsmen of all types who would build intricate wooden treasury boxes and furniture, paint on plates and sides of mirrors, blow bottles of Arabic oud (agarwood) perfume, stitch colorful women’s garments and gold and silver jewelry and create some the most beautiful pearl necklaces in the world. These crafts are all very much artistic and visual.

These are important and sentimental handicrafts, but not high art — let alone the work of “poets” or “actors.” Regardless, the larger issue is that the presence of a suitable artistic tradition doesn’t on its own fully respond to many of the skeptical points being raised by conscientious critics — the reliance on foreign museum brands, cartoonishly monumental installations by Western artists, and mega-budget architecture in lieu of rigorous scholarship or sustainable and independent institutions. (And let us not forget that collaboration with the British is, by and large, what earned today’s ‘anti-colonial’ patrons their continued economic and political clout.)

What is needed, in short, is a judiciously cosmopolitan process of cultural development rather than an orgy of Western cultural marques traded for global cachet and influence by hereditary monarchs. The lone moment we get a sense of an artistic practice standing athwart the cult of the petro-dollar in Al Qassemi’s piece is when he cites “surrealist Mohamed al-Shaibani who critiqued elements of development of the Gulf.” Yet the article linked to for al-Shaibani is in Arabic, on a website of questionable merit, and mentions him only in passing. Virtually nothing else can be found about the artist in either language online. It’s a common symptom — though the Qataris have made some laudable inroads in the world of literature, the entire region remains skewed overwhelmingly toward cultural ventures that trade in Occidental coin.

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